In the past few months, a new word has taken up residence in our common parlance. Where once it might have conjured images of cars or plant/animal crossbreeds, it now refers to an indeterminate mix of online and offline modes of, well, anything. I speak of course, of the word ‘hybrid,’ which is set to characterise Saarang 2022.
Saarang 2021 had the misfortune of being in the vanguard of a brave new world of online fests. While it acquitted itself as well as an online fest could, you’d be deluding yourself if you thought it an experience to look forward to again. The disappointment over virtual ProShows, paid events and the absence of food stalls were fairly obvious. What went unremarked was the utter alienation of attending a fest from a Chrome tab, chained to a desk for several hours, always anticipating a network cup and for some competitive events, the exhausting hyper-awareness of malpractice. A hybrid fest should be an unqualified improvement over an entirely virtual one, right?
Given the depressing content of the news cycle, it is perfectly relevant to ask how and why on-ground events will be coordinated and who will be the audience. While some of the Saarang organising members returned and quarantined in December, some are to stay outside campus and commute to insti regularly to organise the offline events. It is common knowledge that different student bodies and sections of the GSB have been petitioning the admin to have their teams return to campus.
While everyone no doubt has compelling reasons to be back, the administration’s rationale in giving permission to select teams was not made available to the rest of the student body.
This must seem unfair to students, particularly those in DD17, who have been asking to be allowed back to complete academic work. Equally opaque is the justification provided by the secretaries for those offered a chance to return. Regardless of how many or how few took up the offer, is it the case that the presence of these students on campus was indispensable or was it merely a convenient way to get ahead of the official call-back mail for the whole batch? Whatever the reason, the recent rumours that 2019’s return may be postponed due to the third wave is bound to stir up resentment against this murky callback process.
Given the fresh restrictions in Chennai, the cases reported in the hostel zone and multiple COVID protocol smails sent by the admin, is it any wonder that students should question the wisdom of a hybrid fest?
Indeed, the idea of offline events, which will necessitate greater movement on campus, including the commute of a few students from outside, seems to fly in the face of the logic of quarantine.
This writer is not the only student who would prefer a diluted virtual fest rather than jeopardise the possibility of staying on campus or the return of future batches. Of course, the organisers and administration would have formulated strict and elaborate SoPs to ensure COVID-appropriate behaviour. But given how difficult it is to uphold the rules under normal circumstances, it is unclear how effective they will be among excitable students during a fest.
Obviously, the primary and only audience for offline Saarang events would be the batch of 2020. DD17 has returned home, the UG batch of 2018 will be in quarantine, 2019 is scheduled to return later in January and 2021 is entirely out of the picture. Even the 2020 batch’s undivided attention is hardly guaranteed- what with their labs, workshops, NSO/NCA/NSS commitments and even a few pending endsems, the students have enough and more on their plate. The tepid response to the opening of registrations for on-ground events suggests that the enthusiasm for ‘hybrid’ Saarang is highly overrated.
None of this is by way of undervaluing the efforts of those who have worked around the year to pull off a memorable fest in this situation. Given the precarious circumstances, the admin is tight-fisted with assurances, compounding the difficulties of organising events. Students who had planned to stay outside campus were not guaranteed permission to isolate immediately after the fest because it is impractical for the hostel administration to oversee quarantine for small groups of students, especially, since in this case, there would be no break for the authorities after the 2018 batch completes their quarantine.
It may be argued that if Saarang has to continue to exist on the scale it has become accustomed to, it requires a return to some semblance of normalcy. Jokes about the dearth of sponsorship are so commonplace that you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard any. The loss of ProShows revenue was no doubt a blow to Saarang’s finances. Although the prize pool for competitions appears to be intact, paid passes for insti students (before the pandemic, most events were free for IITM students) continues to be a point of contention. Perhaps the difficulty of navigating these financial straits really reflects a collective failure to imagine Saarang as anything but expensive and monstrous in scale, our drastically altered circumstances notwithstanding. However, since it persists with the grandiose tag of ‘the largest student-run fest of South Asia,’ it cannot escape unfavourable comparisons with Shaastra, which has done so obviously well on the sponsorship front that students joke of one fest sponsoring the other!
One is forced to wonder whether the rewards of such an undertaking as hybrid Saarang justify the efforts, which are bound to include a logistical nightmare of audience caps, social distancing, security and slotting. To a dispassionate observer, it would seem that offline events are being pushed by the core organisers for the sake of it. Is hybrid Saarang a case of cultural secretaries trying to live up to their manifestos, which perhaps bit off more than they could chew? Some of the wilfulness may also be chalked up to a final-year nostalgia for a fest the likes of pre-2020 Saarang.
However, the secretaries could have achieved simpler things like making LitSoc happen and streamlining online activities (beginning with creating a website), rather than steering offline events through resistance from every quarter.
To some, it may seem borderline blasphemous to place Saarang under the scanner in this manner. But it is pertinent to remember that Saarang is, at least notionally, a fest run by the students and not the pet project of elected representatives. The deteriorating pandemic situation calls the prudence of in-person events into question and we would be a dense and unthinking lot if we did not seriously cross-examine the desirability of a hybrid fest.
Disclaimer: The above article is an opinion. The views are solely those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of T5E.